Footsteps and the thunder of rolling trash cans echo through the halls of Shady Brook Elementary. The lights are already off in sections of the building, and most of the desks have been pushed into the corners of their classrooms. It’s the first official day of summer for students in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District, but their teachers are still buzzing around campus.
Most of us are at least dimly aware of the rigors of life in Public Education. The short respite that summer brings hardly seems to offset the long hours and tight budgets. But even the tangible challenges don’t tell the full story. Increasingly, teachers find themselves standing in the gap for at-risk students who, in turn, only seem to multiply from year to year. 55% of students in HEB ISD qualify for free or reduced lunch; a percentage that continues to rise at a steady clip.
For educators and administrators at a campus like Shady Brook, the challenge is not simply to educate students. It is to provide them with an environment where they can flourish in spite of their circumstances. When a student arrives in their classroom, they should be able to leave hunger, homelessness, and other family problems outside.
The staff at Shady Brook refer to those unseen burdens as “the Second Backpack,” a term borrowed from educational psychologists. Students carry these backpacks everywhere, even when they can’t afford to carry anything else.
“I’m Everything When I’m in Here.”
Mary Kamm is the teacher we all cherished when we were in grade school: energetic, enthusiastic, and insightful. She had already packed up her classroom when I arrived for our interview, but she was more than happy to push the desks back into their places. Little islands of four, uninhabited for the summer, littered the room as we discussed her (relatively young) career in HEB. Last year was her third in the district.
“I love kids and I love impacting their lives. I love seeing growth; that ‘aha’ moment. So, as long as I can remember, that’s what I’ve wanted to do,” Kamm said almost immediately. I ask her if the job entails more than she expected when she started, and if school supplies provided by Operation Back 2 School really make a difference.
There’s no doubt in her mind on either count.
“I’m a teacher, I’m a counselor, I’m a mom. I’m everything when I’m in here. I mean, I juggle… So that part, having them come in with everything, it helps.”
Second-graders in Kamm’s classroom never lack for supplies because she believes that confidence is the key to their success. She pays for some of her stockpile out-of-pocket, but gets a boost from 6 Stones every August. In her mind, a child can’t succeed without a sense that they are capable of success. A sense that they are loved; that their ideas matter. Every day, her class begins with a “morning meeting.”
Kamm’s classroom is a community — a microcosm of the outside world — and everyone has a place. No matter what life looks like at home.
“Some of them already come from a very hard place. We talk a lot at Shady Brook about how a lot of them come with a ‘second backpack’ from home that they’re carrying. Whether it be that they don’t get enough to eat at home or they don’t have a place to sleep. We don’t need to add [the extra obstacle that] they don’t have supplies.
“We want to try and give these kids as much as we can to make them successful. Set them up for success. Let them come in and just have a fresh start.”
“I Need That Child to Feel Completely Whole.”
Years of experience and two grade levels separate Mary Kamm and Patricia Scott, who has spent the majority of her career here in the Mid-Cities. The former controlled her classroom with brilliant energy, but Scott exudes a quiet serenity. When she speaks, her words are soft but strong; direct from the heart and poignant even when whispered. Both women agree: the job requires them to counsel and care as much as educate, but they’re glad to do it all.
“It’s now rapidly becoming that way. It was a slow trend for the first couple of years, and it’s growing like wildfire,” Scott said. “If academics was the only piece of my job, my job would be incredibly simple. It’s behavior and social skills. It’s part parent and part teacher and part shopper-of-supplies; all-encompassing, it’s a consuming role. And the kids look to you for that.”
As a Fourth Grade Language Arts and Texas History teacher, Scott hosts a healthy amount of interclass discussion. Quality educational time that is sometimes interrupted when students share unexpected details of their lives before Shady Brook. She’s never lived in danger, but through her students’ eyes, she’s watched combat boots stomp around her bedroom from a hiding place underneath the bed.
With at-risk students, she says, the first day of school can set the tone for the entire year.
“If a student is not comfortable when they first come in — even the minute they’re walking in — it sticks with them. It’s so hard for children at this age to keep up with what’s going with their academics and with their peers. When they have to catch up, they already feel behind [as they are] walking through the door,” she said.
“It’s harder to get them back… But if they’ll come in feeling included, if they’ll come in feeling equal with their peers, then that’s already a step in the right direction. It’s one less puzzle that I have to put together.
“I need that child to feel completely whole. Even if it’s just a notebook that’s missing, that’s what they’re spending their time worrying about. They’re not focused on me, they’re not focused on what they’re supposed to be learning… it seems like such a little thing. How do you let it go unaddressed?”
“They May Not Get to Pick Anything Else.”
No matter who you talk to in the district, the consensus is the same: it’s not “just a backpack.” It’s more than “just a pencil.” There’s a psychological and social consequence for students whose families can’t afford to buy supplies for the school year. And, more often than not, teachers foot the bill to fix it. Neither Scott nor Kamm could tell me just how many hundreds of dollars they invest in their classroom every year.
They don’t bother counting because they can only claim the first $250 on their tax return.
“It seems like it’s a little thing, but in the mind of that child, they didn’t have [supplies]… it’s huge to them, because now they’re different. That difference is the beginning of that gap that is just going to continue to grow unless someone steps in and helps them to close it,” Scott said. “It’s more than just a notebook or a pencil. It’s their day and it’s their attitude.”
6 Stones provides every supply on the list for 6,000 local students every year, complete with a backpack to hold it all. The supplies are selected by HEB ISD teachers, but students get to choose their own bags. That little wrinkle adds a surprising amount of excitement.
“They may not get to pick anything else,” Kamm said of the backpacks. “They may have all hand-me-downs and they may not get to choose what they get to eat because they may get all of their stuff at a food bank or a church. This is the one thing they get to own that is theirs. For them, that’s special.”
“You Did This for Me”
Those backpacks have become a marker for teachers in the district, a sort of subtle beacon that helps them to keep track of the students in their classrooms who may need a little extra encouragement and support. Over the years, educators have learned the look of an Operation Back 2 School recipient, even though the program is designed to ensure that participants blend in with their peers.
“It helps us because everybody is prepared. We can start, Day One, and get going,” Kamm said. “I know what the 6 Stones backpacks look like, and those kids are so proud. But, then, I also know that those kids may need a little more throughout the year… I love that, because I already kind of have that connection.”
The district encourages teachers to participate in Operation Back 2 School, and Kamm volunteered for the first time last year. She had so much fun that she couldn’t bring herself to leave at the end of her volunteer shift. She stayed the entire day.
“I think it’s important for a lot of these families that don’t have very much,” Kamm said. “They need to see that we are there for them. I think it’s important that they see their teachers there, and there were tons of teachers there.”
Scott agreed, adding that the energy from Operation Back 2 School carries over into the school year, once again providing a boost for that all-important First Day of Class.
“It gives the kids this hope, this spunk, for a new year. This excitement that I just love to see,” Scott said. “They are overwhelmed with excitement and hope, and when we can keep that going and bring that into the year… that transfers into everything they do.
“They internalize it in a way that is so personal. They don’t look at it and think ‘you did this for all of these people;’ [it’s] ‘you did it for me; they did this for me.’ When you can make a kid feel that special for just a little while, how great is that?”